In January 2022, when the hijab row began in Karnataka, 25-year-old Shazia's life took a 180-degree turn. As someone who wore the hijab, she was prepared to face questions about her 'choice'. But what she wasn't prepared for was the crippling anxiety in the wake of the controversy.
"I felt people staring at me at the mall, at the restaurant, everywhere. I stopped taking public transport. I would even wake up in the middle of the night. All of this affected my productivity at work," Shazia, who worked at a tech startup then, tells The Quint.
But seeking help wasn't easy, nor did it come naturally.
"I had never been in therapy before – and I had to find someone who would get my context, without judgement," she adds.
'Context' is a word that 23-year-old Samir also uses to describe his experience with therapists. On his first day as a consultant for one of the Big Four accounting firms in Delhi-NCR, a colleague told him: "People from your community do not really study, right? It's good that you are here."
"It was my first day at my first job. it was also the first day I got a panic attack. I couldn't dare to use the company-referred doctors and hospitals. What if I was seeing a psychologist who thought that this was a non-issue to have a panic attack over?" he asks.
Seeking mental health support, in general, can be challenging, but why are young Muslim professionals in India today finding it even more difficult?
In December 2022, Bebaak Collective, a coalition of autonomous women's groups across states, released a report titled 'Social Suffering In A World Without Support' – which called for an urgent need to focus on the mental health needs of the Muslim community in India.
According to the report, Islamophobia, 'hyper vigilance', violence based on communal lines, and discrimination were adversely impacting young professionals.
In conversation with FIT, Muslim professionals share how they not only fear opening up about deep-rooted trauma, anticipating judgement and islamophobia by therapists, but also refrain from seeking help altogether because of such experiences.
'Non-Muslim Therapists Don't Hear Us'
When 30-year-old Mohammad Irfan, who is working in marketing in Delhi-NCR, reached out to a therapist via a colleague, he did not receive a callback.
"I called his office for an appointment, and they immediately gave me one. But when they started taking my details, I could sense a hesitancy. She told me she will speak to the doctor and call me to confirm my appointment, but she never did. Maybe, I am reading too much into it. But how come the appointment was available till they heard my name?"
Shazia, too, booked an appointment with a non-Muslim therapist. Unlike Irfan, she did get an appointment. However, the fear of judgement stopped her from opening up to the therapist.
"She [the therapist] asked me to tell her about myself. I remember just freezing. My mind was thinking what if this person thinks I am regressive? What if she asks me to make a change? I couldn't open up. I said sorry and walked away. It was then that I realised I needed to talk to someone who gets it."
But this fear is not unsubstantiated. Some, who have sought help, have been asked to 'consider ways to fit in' as a solution for their anxiety.
Heena (name changed), who works as a journalist in Delhi, tells FIT:
"I used to wear a hijab on the way to my workplace, but would remove it once I am in the newsroom. But ever since the hijab row started, something changed in the way people looked at me. Anyone and everyone would get into arguements about it with me. At one point, I felt my editor knew this issue was making me anxious, but he would still assign work related to it to me."
When she saw a therapist about it, she was told to 'consider' going to work without the hijab.
"I don't think the therapist saw that the issue was my workplace. After a few sessions, she was suggesting things that I should change about myself. To me, it felt like she was blaming me for anxiety issues."
When Samir opened up to his therapist about how he he was triggered when he saw his closest friends' posts blaming 'Tablighi Jamaat' for the COVID spike in Delhi in April 2020, his then therapist asked him to quit social media.
"Maybe, this was good advise. But it did not work for me, as I wanted to be encouraged to have a chat with them. I felt that by removing myself from social media, I am also invalidating myself, ignoring an issue that actually exists."
Why Is 'Context' a Legit Concern?
"The community of mental health professionals itself is not very diverse. A majority of them are savarna women. A lot of the time, there is apprehension about whether they are going to understand the context that I am coming from," explains Ahla Matra, a Mumbai-based psychologist, who has been practising for over six years.
Patients think: do I have to explain my identity, my culture to a non-Muslim therapist? Would they say that my concerns are just in my mind? Is my identity going to be deleted?" she added.
Dr Ruksheda Syeda, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist, who has been practising for the last 20 years, says that she's seen a shift when it comes to choosing doctors – in terms of caste and religion.
"We do see those preferences right now because you know there is a general mistrust. We have seen this in terms of gender, and now we are seeing this in other aspects as well. When I first started out, people would choose psychologists only on the basis of how good they are."
"Now, if a Muslim patient is seeing a non-Muslim psychologist for compulsive disorder, the patient will need to explain that washing hands before prayer is not a symptom," Dr Syeda added.
"I'm not suggesting that the medical or the paramedic community is biased. I don't want to discourage more people from seeking help. A majority of therapists do not have lived experience to address issues faced by Muslims in India today. Not having context, or not making an effort to understand the context, can affect the person seeking mental health help much more," Dr Syeda explains.
"It is not like you would get quality mental health care only if you go to a therapist who shares your religious identity. But in general, this is because they get the socio-political context," seconds Matra.
What Are Young Muslims Speaking About in Therapy?
"I have people telling me how triggered they are because of a uncle's Islamophobic message on their residence groups, I don't even want to get into all the micro-aggressions they face at workplace because they belong to the Muslim community, and even if one wants to distance from all of this, you have the 24x7 news cycle where you have only communal violence playing, Dr Syeda tells FIT.
"These concerns have really increased in the last few years. But when I discuss this with my non-Muslim peers, they tell me that their Muslim patients do not share these concerns with them. Because... how will they?"Dr Syeda
A study published in 2020 by the Population Research and Policy Review found:
"A visible mental health gap" between Muslims and upper caste Hindus even after removing the gaps in educational attainment and asset wealth between the two groups
Politically motivated violence, rise of right-wing nationalism, among other factors behind worsening mental health among Muslims
"A unhealthy and unsupportive work environment is a big problem that most young Muslims face. There has been micro-aggressions, but now it is in your face. It affects how they go on about their everyday life. I have lost count of the number of times my patients hear that people from our community 'don't study,'" Dr Syeda added.
Not having the safe space to speak about what truly matters to them also means that younger Muslims are hesitating to reach out for help, the experts add.
It has been over a year since Heena was suggested she tries to 'fit in' by a therapist, but she has not gone back to see a mental health professional after that. The same goes for Irfan.
"I got very conscious after the therapist cancelled my appointment. I want to seek help, but in time."
What Can Psychologists Do?
A big part of the disconnect has to do with the training that is imparted to mental health professionals in India, experts add.
"If you look at the history of mental health support in India, people have been told to reach out for help for specific conditions. Mental health professionals dont have the training or support to navigate the complexities of politics and identity in the therapy room, how historic oppression manifests in our bodies and minds," says Matra.
"We are only recently and slowly moving towards understanding power dynamics, decolonising psychotherapy, liberation psychology. All of these new ideas and concepts are coming from BIPOC therapists practising abroad. We are trying to gather as much information, take notes from historical settings, and learning and unlearning how we can help our patients better," she adds.
To put it simply, decolonising psychotherapy is an approach centering one's "own rich familial, cultural, and ancestral wisdom, experiences, knowledge, and strengths", when in the process of healing.
Liberation psychology, meanwhile, is "offering an emancipatory approach to understanding and addressing oppression among individuals and groups," as per the American Psychological Association (APA).
But as a therapist, the onus is on them to recognise if their methods are not best suited for a patient, and refer them to someone who is more capable of handling their context.
"What if people are already going through depression, anxiety, or cognitive issues? What happens when they do not have safe spaces to confide in? I feel it is important to come together as a community and recognise this. Not put the onus on the patient to find the right help, but instead guide them in finding the right one," Dr Syed says.